Having no Personality is all the Rage

Attention to all main characters – start acting like one

Unsure what personality to give your character? No problem then. Don’t give him one. That’s not the type of mentality I like seeing any a story, but that’s the type of approach I’m seeing more often in them. Main characters just not acting like main characters.

I have high regards for about characters’ personalities in a story. In my opinion they constitute greatly what keeps a story together by creating atmosphere, connections between characters, and attract the audience’s attention with their personal stories. I always look for elements in a show that would keep me entertained. If one fails, there’s another element, if that one fails then there’s another element. In short, there should be something that keeps the viewer engaged in a story. Having a strong lead (in the sense of how interesting he or she is) guarantees a strong start and also guarantees to keep that as much as it can. It’s a good thing. I’d say it’s a great thing for the main character to interact and get involved with the story and the events happening within it. When the opposite happens and main leads don’t behave like main characters they disrupt the flow of the story creating this disconnection between the main character, the story and the audience to a point the audience questions whether this character is supposed to the star of the story or we are all still waiting patiently for the star of the show to get on stage.

I’m severely bothered by this formula (to call it that) where stories carry on in such dry and uninspired fashion and be certain they would work. Is it because it works? Is it because the audience accepts it? I’m inclined to believe there should be an intention to make either the story or its characters to be unique, easy to relate or, to use a broad term, “appealing”. If this isn’t the case then the creators should find the character’s own niche and be daring about it. Ideally, both the story and its main character should be on par to create an equally engaging show. These are the ambitions I believe any show should have.

After watching Kamisama no Memo-chou I was significantly reminded of the common trend of having passive characters with limited or zero personality as main characters.  The first and foremost impression I had that of Kamisama no Memou-chou was similar to the same impression I had of other shows where they are badly in need of a real lead. The reaction was so strong it wouldn’t be that far-fetched to think that even if such leads were to be kidnapped and replaced by mannequins and hardly anyone would take notice. That bad.

So there’s the question of whether a character has a dull, weak, or simply lacks a personality to begin with. Is that possible? Possibly. To explain further the problem isn’t that the character has a terrible personality and with difficulty he or she will become a favorite character. It is understandable if the character doesn’t have an intriguing personality as one could figure it was poorly designed in the first place and the plot does little to turn this character into a memorable lead resulting into a forgettable character. To put this notion more strongly, I think it’s downright asinine to have a character who doesn’t act the part of the main character of a story and it is a disservice to the audience. The audience watches a show to be immersed in its world, to see what type of story it is, to witness the events in this character’s life unfold thus becoming interested in his or her story which the main story revolves around. Because that’s what it comes down to because it is a story about those characters. That is the role of a main character of a story.

there are two blades in this picture only one of them is sharp

The lack of personality in main characters is fairly common among leads and usually it is compensated by plot itself when played right. Shichika from Katanagatari is a great offender for being one-dimensional to a painful fault for roughly ¾ of the story. He has no reason to fight, he does not think or let other thoughts disturb him, his resolution does not waver, but that’s because he lacks a personality or believes in anything to begin with. For anyone new to a story like this and expecting the lead to act the part  you can see how this can pose a problem. It is a even a bigger problem when the lead character’s growth happens to be fairly slow. For everything it did right, Katanagatari did wrong concerning its lead since he was never a strong point of the series until the very end which by that time anyone not feeling the show had jumped the ship months ago.

Far from being a perfect example of lack of personality in a story, Katanagatari gets away with such strong usage of lack of personality by giving a reason why the lead has a valid reason to be devoid of a personality. What Katanagatari is a better example of is how it is possible and common for the main character of a story to not be particularly or mandatory for a lead to be fully involved in the story to be in it. It’s disconcerting how a *main* character (note) *main* can have so little direct involvement in a show where he or she IS the main attraction. Characters with passive, dull, and zero personalities rank low on the scale of good characters for a story. It is a matter of concern when because of their lack of personality antagonists and supporting characters become more likeable than main characters in a story. Isn’t that just off? It is even more strange how passive main characters can be allowed to remain idle until the very end, that is, assuming they eventually reach that level by themselves.

In a lesser degree than Katanagatari [C] The Money of Soul and the Possibility of Control also suffers from having a lead with a very poor personality. All of this is a main character issue in these stories and how having little to no personality is more popular than it should. To quote myself in this post I referred to Kimimaru as someone “the audience should not be bothered by how passive he was.” That is in nutshell his performance in [C]. As much as I enjoyed [C] the insecure and almost non-existent role of the lead when it came to taking decisions took a heavy toll on my final impressions of the show. Kimimaru is the type of main lead like others in the same tier who even though they are part of greater part of the story and are involved in the story because of their role as main characters they do not choose to willingly participate in the story. Even when they DO participate in the story and are seemingly willingly to do it they still lack the conviction to make their personal actions matter as if expecting for the others characters to tell them what they should do next. They are, to put it metaphorically, like autumn leaves in a windy day – always being blown and swept away.

*pssst* this way

Main characters such as these lack an edge as alone they look and more importantly feel insipid because of the plain character structure used to create them. They are very one-dimensional. There’s no passion. There’s no feeling. They lack what leads should have. Whether they are easy to relate or not isn’t the big issue, the issue is rather how inactive main characters in a story can actually be despite their role as main characters. In the long run it affects the structure of the plot. Admittedly, it is part of the character growth for the character to reach the level the story wants its lead to obtain by the end of the journey, however it’s another matter to have a main character lack a personality so severely and use this method as if it was strong approach to creating remotely memorable characters.

The lack of an actual lead detracts from the positive and exciting experience of watching a show about the story about their lives. It’s difficult to enjoy a story where the characters is hardly present. It’s difficult to have interest in a show where the main characters move from A to B to C and in none of them the character engages in meaningful conversations and events on his own. The impression I have of such shows is that: this show has no main character whatsoever. It lacks one as it has not being created yet.

Stories with limited or zero personality leads are part of a passive approach where the leads are unaware. Unaware they are the stars of the story and that their lives are the main attraction of the show which keep the audience engaged. There is little effort put in creating these characters for these stories with nonchalant attitude where it seems that after several unsuccessful tries the authors opted for not giving their leads actual personalities. The result is less than attractive. It is a bland character who won’t stand up for himself, who won’t stand out in the story possessing a pallid personality lacking of neither positive nor negative demeanors. To say the least this character is insipid in nature. Being dislikable would be valid. Being exasperating would be valid. Being the most negative traits or most positive ones would be certainly valid because they are still within the possible personalities for character to have because that would actually mean they have one.

like those cans only less charismatic

The hear of the matter in having main characters with little to no personality is how these stories carry on in such a poor way where the lead has limited impacts on the events and all the key events have no explanation expecting the twists to unfold by themselves. All of these while the audience is questioning who exactly the lead of the story was and why this character continues to remain idle all times until later on in the story, that is, should the character stop being invisible and become transparent and at some point get some colors. And also ask themselves the biggest question: why don’t they step aside for another lead to take over? No matter how overused this approach is used it doesn’t get any better when the motivation to continue watching a show is slowly drained away by the idleness of the main character and their vapid personalities. Here is my question to all the creators of such characters. Answer this anime: These characters don’t care. Why should the audience? Hey, you main character who hasn’t realized you’re one yet. Wake up. You’re the star of your show. Start acting like one.

For all the disagreements between what constitute great and terrible characters they all have something going for them because I’ll say one thing in their defence: At least they have a personality. We’ll have to ask the authors next time there’s a new project and offhandedly ask them what they have in mind for their characters because when it comes to creating a story having zero personality characters is all the rage.  Do we really like them that much?

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9 thoughts on “Having no Personality is all the Rage

  1. I think of it as an age-old trick that:
    – intends the audience project themselves onto this “blank slate” character
    – trivializes them as a world-building device, since they know nothing about their world
    – makes it easier to make the lead do almost anything, since it’s not “out of character”
    – makes it easier to write the other characters, since anything contrasts with nothing
    – is a less risky prospect than targeting a specific audience with a well-defined character only some people might like

    So in short, I think it’s just creative laziness. No one likes them, they’re just all we have (except what we would have simply called “protagonists” ten years ago, like Tiger from Tiger and Bunny, who are now held up as exemplars of “great characters”).

    • I avoided using the term “lazy writing”, but it greatly sums up the lack of work put into creating such characters. To me “blank stale” sounds like a convenient way to freely create a character that it can be a good or a bad thing. I think it’s a good thing they have the liberty to create a character. It’s a bad thing if they take a large amount of time to develop a personality even worse if we can only see the results by the end of the story.

      I think they should be better ways to create a character’s personality that don’t rely so heavily on the “blank slate” approach. In these cases the term “main character” for characters fitting the limited / blank personality group is used very loosely.

      • Sure, but there are limits to how far I will accept that idea. If the character has almost no personality, and it’s not explained as something odd, then it’s just lazy writing to me. Even newborns have more personality than many recent anime leads. You can start with a personality and evolve it, and not just excuse yourself because you didn’t know what the character was supposed to be when you started.

  2. I thought Kimimaro was one of the better ones – sure he was a bit laissez-faire, but he still had his convictions and acted upon them. But I wholeheartedly agree with you. I wonder if rather than laziness, it has to do with a cultural difference in story-telling.

    Personally, I’ve always thought you let characters drive the story. You create strong characters and they’ll eventually take the story into interesting places. But maybe that’s a western characteristic, what with our much stronger emphasis on individuality than the Japanese emphasis on community, which leads to less of an emphasis in trying to break from the mold and stand out.

    It probably also has a bit of what Hogart mentions – I call it the Legend of Zelda style, where the character is a blank slate so you can impress yourself upon it. But that works better when the medium is interactive. Whether you impress yourself on an anime character or not doesn’t matter, because the story’s going to play out regardless.

    Still, when I think of animes that I’ve loved, they almost always have very strong personalities associated with them, L/Light in Death Note, Lelouch in Code Geass, basically the whole ensemble in Higurahsi, Haruhi/Kyon, even for romances and comedies, shows like Nodame Cantabile and Seto no Hanayome stood out to me, because they had characters with personality and depth.

    • When I look at anime I see they have also created different characters with different attitudes. I don’t see it as a limited world, rather that the people working on it have the decision to make it so. The creators have control on what character they want to create how they will behave therefore it is up to them to create them the best they can. It’s fantastic when they main characters and the story can be on par and the audience can become interested in both of them. For what I’ve seen idle characters with dry personalities are tend to be shows with poor writing because rarely these stories turn out to be as engaging as they could.

      For the case of Kimimaru and similar cases I think that these characters could’ve been made so much better if not only they would’ve appealed to the audience but also managed to have more conviction and play their role more actively and not only when the show was almost over. When a story decides to finally turn their character into strong lead at the last minute it rarely sits well with me because by that time it is usually forced or past overdue. It’s fairly tricky to pull this off if the characters aren’t loveable by this time.

      Perhaps it is a matter of cultural difference and story-telling that appeals to different audience differently. Personally, most of the time shows with poor leads don’t usually spell out solid solid writing because you get the feeling that there was always something in the story that could’ve been improved upon that the creators didn’t pay much attention to.

  3. In regards to these no-personality main characters, a lot of the times, I question whether they actually are the main characters or just the first character being introduced (which a lot of people seem to confuse for the same thing, especially if the character is very stereotypical). Contrary to your post, I say that if a character doesn’t do much during the story and doesn’t even appear all that often, they’re not the main character. If they have a lot of screen time despite not doing anything, then I can classify them as terrible main characters.

    • That’s an interesting way to look at it. Most of the time the audience can tell who the main character is by who appears first in the show or by who has the most lines. It’s not easy to tell who the main character when the main character don’t act like main characters except by noticing where the focus of the story is no matter how little the leads stand out.

      Those are usually the types of shows where the supporting characters become more loveable than the main characters. Strange thing but quite popular.

      • Well, it’s true that the main character not being the first character introduced or the character who has the most lines is very rare, especially in anime. Sket Dance and Durarara (although this one is sort of debatable) are about the only anime that come to my mind of having main characters like this. I don’t think any of the examples you listed in your post qualify, including Kamisama No Memo Chou. Despite only seeing one episode, at least the examples I listed above didn’t have an opening that made the “no personality main character” look extremely important. Kamisama’s opening does, unfortunately.

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